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Pink Triangles, Rainbow Flags and Other Gay Symbols

The long taboo of homosexuality brought about an early need for gay men to secretly identify each other and communicate, bringing birth to "gay code." While gay women had less established ways, examples for men included manners of dress, such as wearing green in the 1800s or red ties in the 1920s, and secret ways to refer to other gay persons in conversation, like "a friend of Dorothy" (a reference to the iconic film "Wizard of Oz" and Judy Garland) beginning in the 1950s, or being "in the life".

Over the last 30 years, certain symbols have been adopted by the gay community as it has shed its invisibility. And as marketer interest in the gay community has grown in the last decade, companies have often included those symbols in advertising but without understanding their history or meaning. Here is a look at a few of the most prominent:

PINK TRIANGLE In Nazi Germany, Paragraph 175 was the notorious law passed to prohibit same-sex touching, with an estimated 25,000 gay men convicted to concentration camps. Among the elaborate patch symbols to identify despised classes in the camps was the inverted pink triangle for gay men (black triangles for lesbians and "anti-social behavior" among women). In the 1970s, the symbol was reclaimed by the gay community to take away its negative power, and in the 1980s the direct action group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) rolled it into their marketing-savvy tactics by including it with a powerful poster that read "Silence=Death." (Created by ad-hoc coalition Gran Fury.)

LAMBDA The eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet, the lambda, was first chosen as a gay symbol when it was adopted in 1970 by the New York Gay Activists Alliance, though its reasons are vague. Nonetheless, in 1974 the lambda was subsequently adopted by the International Gay Rights Congress held in Edinburgh, Scotland, and grew to become a symbol of the gay liberation movement. Still, it never gained general awareness outside of the gay community.

AIDS RIBBON In the 1990s, the red AIDS ribbon became a crossover symbol of society's tacit support of the gay community as it mourned the many who died. Attention grew through the death of closeted stars like Rock Hudson, extensive work by Elizabeth Taylor and ribbon-wearing actors on Academy Awards programs. Although AIDS fears quickly scared away corporate America's interest in the gay market that began in the late 1970s, it wasn't until mainstream acceptance of the epidemic in the mid-1990s that sponsors began delicately reentering the gay market.

RAINBOW FLAG The Rainbow Flag is now the most widely recognized gay symbol. It was first created in 1978 for San Francisco's Gay Freedom Celebration by Gilbert Baker, with eight colors in horizontal stripes. The original flag contained two more stripes than the six-striped one (red, orange, green, royal blue, violet) now regularly seen. Baker's originally stated intentions for the colors were red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for serenity with nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, violet for spirit and hot pink for sex, but today the rainbow flag is widely embraced as a representation of the diversity of the gay community. Although the gay stereotype still largely holds the image of the young white male, the community is actually comprised of every race, creed, color, national origin, age, religion, sex and disability.

As corporate America continues to grow comfortable with the gay community, its advertising and use of imagery becomes more sophisticated. Companies now incorporate "gay vague" imagery and messages, male beefcake, lesbians as male fantasy, camp sensibility and clever language in marketing efforts, though in mainstream ads gay stereotypes often remain an inspiration for comedic effect and even homophobia is still used to sell products.

Nonetheless, marketers have also slowly begun to introduce inclusive and balanced representations of the gay and lesbian community in their mainstream messages. They are realizing that a majority of society now has gay family members, friends and colleagues and that they are a daily part of our culture and history.

Michael Wilke has written about the ad industry for over a decade at Advertising Age, Inside Media and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, Brandweek and The Advocate. He is now Executive Director of the Commercial Closet Association, a unique non-profit advertising education and journalism organization that is a global resource on gay representation in advertising. Its archive of nearly 1,000 gay-themed ads worldwide, spanning 30 years, can be found at CommercialCloset.org.


Mike Wilke, July 25, 2002

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